American Gray Squirrels: pets and pests, creatures of contrast
February 14, 2020 1:20 PM   Subscribe

In the late 1800s, squirrels were favorite pets (Atlas Obscura), as seen by Benjamin Franklin's letter written in 1722, morning the passing of Mungo (Google books), and the 1851 book Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management (Internet Archive), has a chapter on pet squirrels. John James Audubon wrote about the Migratory Gray Squirrel in The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, and describes how and when to capture a young squirrel to domesticate. In the late 19th century, American squirrels flooded London parks. To Victorians, uninitiated to the perils of invasive species, these creatures were exotic, attractive, even cuddly (Atlas Obscura), and their views were probably informed from Americans, who would even have portraits of their children painted, including pet squirrels (Artsy).

But over time, squirrels were seen as the wild animals that they are, even portrayed as a dire menace. In 1918, California drafted children into a war on squirrels (Atlas Obscura).

Previously: Squirrels & Squee is not just an indie band -- including a section noting that "humans have been obsessed with squirrels through the ages."
posted by filthy light thief (39 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
John Brown, not the dogged Abolitionist John Brown late of Harper’s Ferry but the stridently pro-slavery John Brown of Providence, RI, really liked squirrels and carved them all over his house and generally used them as a piece of heraldry.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:25 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Bonus poem: “The Pensioner in Gray” by Marian Longfellow (Google books).

And a lesson outline with links to more online resources: The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States.

Finally, History of Squirrels in New York from New York Magazine, in an article titled "Alien Squirrel."
posted by filthy light thief at 1:27 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Admittedly cute, fluffy-tailed arboreal rats...
posted by jim in austin at 1:43 PM on February 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

Squirrels are hugely underrepresented in the furry fandom as far as animals which could be really great animals to be.
posted by hippybear at 1:46 PM on February 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

I was reading the bylaws for my city just two weeks ago, squirrels are on a list of expressly prohibited animals, right between "non-human primates" and "front-fanged venomous snakes."
posted by RobotHero at 1:48 PM on February 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

But are they extremely good to eat??
posted by chrchr at 1:57 PM on February 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Even though they are jerks for digging up my bulbs and thwarting my attempts to feed the birds squirrels are so fun to watch. I've got family friends who leave out food for squirrels and they can recognize the different ones that come to their house. I like to bug them by pretending to throw food for them and they'll stop and come closer and closer trying to catch the food. They used to taunt my cats all the time by walking right up to the window. I think someone here had described them as lovable jerks and that is how I think of them.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:00 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

squirrels are on a list of expressly prohibited animals, right between "non-human primates" and "front-fanged venomous snakes."

It's really none of the government's business who or what we make our bishops.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:06 PM on February 14, 2020 [20 favorites]

Mr. Botanizer has employed many tactics to thwart the bird seed bandits but they defeat every one. He is convinced that he is thereby driving evolution by selecting for intelligence and one day they will be our overlords.
posted by Botanizer at 2:28 PM on February 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

When my godson was two or maybe three, he had a book about some young forest animals (maybe a rabbit and a robin and a mouse) who were friends and went on an adventure together. In the course of it they naturally meet a bunch of other animals, whom they talk with and befriend.

When he first showed me the book, he was eager to show off that he knew the sounds all the animals they met made: he demonstrated some impressive hoots for the owl, some falsetto meows for the kitten, and so on. I was puzzled because for the squirrel, he produced this quiet chuckle sort of sound, which I could not connect to squirrels (largely silent in my experience, with the occasional aggrieved chitter).

It took me a while to connect that the cartoon animals were drawn kind of comically, and he was flawlessly mimicking his mom’s laugh, as she gave a little chuckle whenever she got to that page when she was reading the book to him.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 2:30 PM on February 14, 2020 [16 favorites]

So, what is up with all the pitch-black squirrels that suddenly showed-up over the past couple of decades? Those are some scary-looking rodents. No idea if they’re as tasty as the standard grays.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:46 PM on February 14, 2020

Squirrels do make a chuckling noise. I think it's an expression of annoyance.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:49 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

I briefly had a red squirrel whose mother had been killed. A lovely animal I set free when he was old enough. None of us in the family will ever get over that squirrel leaping from one of our heads to another.

That's a fine painting, but the wrong Copley to be obsessed with.

I am obsessed with a Rembrandt Peale with the same feel as that Copley- it's a painting of his brother Reuben with a new-fangled Geranium. The pride of ownership in his face!
posted by acrasis at 2:54 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Has Jill ever made it onto the blue before?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:13 PM on February 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

fluffy-tailed arboreal rats

In the woods maybe, in a city context it’s more like ‘despicable obese fluffy-tailed arboreal rats’. Ours are quite fat, lay waste to our garden just to spite us (I stand by the just-to-spite-us part) and have managed to chew a hole through thick pvc to get in our garbage bin. F****ck squirrels.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 3:16 PM on February 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Pitch black squirrels: Black fur is dominant, so it's a common mutation in domestic animals. In urban areas, black squirrels can survive. In areas where hawks are common, they are very conspicuous and get eaten.
posted by acrasis at 3:28 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

I had a fluffy-tailed visitor recently.
posted by nonasuch at 3:47 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

When my dog died of old age, my mom was inconsolable. One of the things that lifted her mood were all the squirrels that returned to our yard no longer fearing the beast that used to roam there. I’ll never forget returning from college and seeing her sitting at her little table in the garden, drinking tea, squirrel on her shoulder, half a dozen more waiting for their daily peanut handout. The neighborhood squirrels remained friends with my mom for many years and even gained house privileges.
posted by pleem at 3:52 PM on February 14, 2020 [24 favorites]

Instead of sleeping in, the local squirrels have been out and about all this winter.

I'm not an avid gardener, so I've always been more amused than anything else by "gardening by squirrel" (bulbs being transported to random locations in the yard). However, I had to evict a squirrel from the attic of House the Trilogy this past summer, and I heard Suspicious Noises overhead just a couple of nights ago that makes me wonder if I once again have multiple-legged non-rent-paying residents (with fur).
posted by thomas j wise at 3:58 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

My southern Ontario Canadian city has a good-sized University which annually imports new undergrads who have no real experience with black squirrels or squirrels as fat, brazen and numerous as the ones we boast. Over the years the students have gradually built up a minor mythos and cult following around the elusive golden squirrel.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 4:43 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I've been putting out peanuts for blue jays for nearly 20 years, and after a couple of years I finally saw a squirrel, which visited occasionally from across the street, where there were slightly more trees in my urban neighborhood. Now there's several regular visitors of the grey and furry sort, and I saw an article in the local paper complaining that the squirrels seem to have partially abandoned SJSU (which I live a half block from.) I wonder if I am contributing to a shift in population!
posted by tavella at 4:43 PM on February 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

One time a pet squirrel scurried up my torso as though I were a tree. I still have a tiny scar, decades later; it may be my favorite.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:46 PM on February 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

One time the across the alley neighbor of me and my family (wealthy uncle to a famous 80's era singer/songwriter who practiced there on their piano) took a dislike to squirrels in his yard. One day he came out of his home with a rifle to take a shot at one, hitting it in the leg. Since this was in a Chicago neighborhood butt-deep in children out and about there was hell to pay even for this rich guy. No more fire fights ensued, and for the rest of that summer I watched a three-legged squirrel joyfully gambol about his yard, fence and garage. Hail, Survivor!
posted by Chitownfats at 6:02 PM on February 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

I grew up with squirrels. My grandfather would feed them and go out and hunt and eat them. It was not uncommon to have squirrels climbing up my pants or sitting on my knee patiently waiting for a walnut. Same with cardinals, all Disney like, little critters just coming around and sitting on you and eating out of your hands.

In university I used to sit outside and have sparrows that would come and sit on my hand and eat little bits of french-fries. Here you go little one.

City squirrels are a bit different, more rats with nice fluffy tails. I made the mistake once of missing my little furry friends and getting a young squirrel to come and sit on my leg for a nice treat.

Little expletive-deleted bastard would climb the screen on my window and bark at me to come and give him a nut. Bastard knew my schedule and would not leave me alone.

They probably make as decent a pet as a rat or a bird (or a ferret) if you can deal with the idiosyncratic behavior.
posted by zengargoyle at 6:27 PM on February 14, 2020 [9 favorites]

They probably make as decent a pet as a rat or a bird (or a ferret) if you can deal with the idiosyncratic behavior.

It's my impression(from a few gifs on imgur/reddit) that once a squirrel is used to hand-feeding, if it approaches you and you don't have food, it may bite you.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:59 PM on February 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Either you provide the food, or you are the food. It's Nature's way.
posted by hippybear at 7:06 PM on February 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

That Copley painting gets a verse in Walter Martin's Watson and the Shark.
(great album, btw)
posted by niicholas at 7:53 PM on February 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

I love using Atlas Obscura when I travel. In 2018 I went to Illinois to see the Greater Prairie Chickens on their lek, and on the way back to Tennessee, we stopped to see if we could find the descendants of these white squirrels and take pictures with all the white squirrel statues in the town. We did! It was neat!

I also feed birds and have a lot of squirrels because of it. I decided that I’d try to tell the difference between them and give them names, in order to endear them to me more. The only one I can reliably identify is one who doesn’t have a tail. His name is Giger.

My grandma in Michigan used to handfeed a squirrel from her porch. I thought it was amazing and as much as I have a fondness for Giger, I don’t want to encourage the little buggers any further.
posted by oomny at 9:05 PM on February 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Either you provide the food, or you are the food. It's Nature's way.

Don't think that indoors is safe. You're still on the menu.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:45 PM on February 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

The squirrels that come into my yard are still too wary of humans to come anywhere near me, in spite of my leaving small piles of birdseed for them, while they watched. They have no fear whatever of the cat, who has concluded that he has no chance of catching them, and ignores them. (He's not a coward; sometimes he charges a flock of turkeys just for the LOLs.)

The Squirrel Buster birdfeeder I learned about here has been largely effective in stopping the gray marauders from stealing all the seed. They get some by crashing into it so there's a spill, but mostly it's the sparrows who empty it. (For the past few months, I've had to fill it with mixed seed, which the sparrows really like. When I went to buy a big bag of sunflower seeds, they were sold out. I think it was Bear Season, and the hunters had cleaned the supply out.)
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:49 AM on February 15, 2020

It's not just Queens. I grew up in a college town, went to and dropped out of several other colleges, and eventually went to yet another one for grad school, and all of them had folklore about their squirrels being uniquely brave and annoying.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:21 AM on February 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have zero sentimentality about squirrels since we had some in the attic. Where they can chew wires and start fires. The guy who came to get them assured us he would release them instead of kill them and I told him it was his choice, but the damn things weren't going extinct so I wouldn't cry if he did.
posted by emjaybee at 9:21 AM on February 15, 2020

Stan Vs. Squirrel
posted by RobotHero at 12:49 PM on February 15, 2020

We have some black squirrels in the DC area; they are from Canada.
posted by gudrun at 5:55 PM on February 16, 2020

Growing up, my Dad had a pet squirrel and a pet skunk. You'd think he lived somewhere where taming wild animals was more popular, but this was in Lexington, Massachusetts during the 1940s and 50s. My aunt's side of the family has a picture of him with the squirrel poking his head out of Dad's shirt front pocket. I guess squirrels are very trainable.
posted by xingcat at 8:06 AM on February 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Thank you, filthy light thief. This was exactly what I wanted to read; I have been wondering about my local city squirrels for ages.
posted by elizilla at 10:35 AM on February 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Do squirrels not carry rabies and other diseases?
posted by LizBoBiz at 11:15 AM on February 17, 2020

Per the CDC, it's extremely rare.
posted by tavella at 11:51 AM on February 17, 2020

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